Attention to appearances
My colleague Allan Woods has a great story in today's paper, which proves that every picture tells 1,000 words (or thereabouts). Allan looked into what he describes as the "striking" and "puzzling" edict that went out this summer and look what he found...
It was a lazy Monday in July when orders went out to have Queen Elizabeth’s portrait hung in uniform fashion at embassies and consulates around the world, in part, officials say, to prepare for the Queen’s 60-year Jubilee in 2012.
But Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird apparently had a personal stake in the process when he found an outdated photo of himself hanging on the wall of Canada’s embassy in Mexico in mid-August, according to documents obtained by the Toronto Star.
Image and appearance are crucially important to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government.
We learned this early in 2006, in fact, when we were told that the PM wanted to do press conferences in the Commons foyer (as opposed to the National Press Theatre) because the foyer had the requisite flags and props of institutional authority. The PMO also told the press gallery that the government would use the National Press Theatre more if we renovated it to accommodate video screens and suitable backdrops (we did, by the way, at a substantial cost.)
On Harper's second official trip abroad as PM in 2006 -- the first was to Afghanistan -- reporters were told that he wouldn't be scrumming or making any remarks on the first day in Mexico because the PMO communications folks had decided they wanted the coverage to be "all visuals." At the right here, you can see a product of that all-visuals planning.
But let's get back to Baird. It is starting to be clear that within a government keenly fixated on image and props, he's definitely the keenest. A couple of years ago, I was reliably told that Baird was the one who pushed hard for those big, oversized cheques at government-funding announcements. We also know he's a big patron of the art bank, and of course, we know the attention to detail paid to his business card. So is Baird the brand-manager-in-chief for the government? Or is he just its most assiduous minister in the attention-to-appearances campaign?
In the private sector, this preoccupation with image is called branding, of course, and branding concerns aren't solely a concern of this government. Branding, let's remember, was also at the heart of Jean Chretien's post-referendum bid to plaster Quebec with flags and other images of Canadian federalism in the late 1990s. (We'll remember how that turned out.) During the Chretien years, as well, Industry Canada launched a major "brand Canada" initiative, largely under the overview of another savvy marketer-politico, Brian Tobin.
Harper's Conservative government has also been wrapping itself in the flag as of late, though Heritage Minister James Moore insists that the difference between this flag obsession and Chretien's is that no one is going to be forced to fly the Maple Leaf.
I am enduringly intrigued by all this political attention to branding -- it's going to be a big part of the book I'm writing right now (due out next year.) I haven't decided yet whether it's a good or bad thing. I suppose with many things in politics (or life) that it can be troubling if image matters more than substance. Or worse, if image is confused with substance.
** The little branding chart, above, comes from a website called: http://www.onlinebrandingcompany.ca/ I like it because it shows how the ingredients of marketing can also be applied to politics. (Repetition, i.e., familiar to all of us who have to endure talking points from the politicos.) Do check out the website for a larger image and some of their wisdom about branding.***